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Chiefly known for his inventive indie horror and thriller work, Brit director Simon Rumley’s take on the tragic true story of maritime adventurer Donald Crowhurst is notable for several reasons. One is a rare executive producer credit for that grand old alchemist of British cult cinema, Nicolas Roeg (Walkabout, Don’t Look Now, Bad Timing), who once tried to film this story himself. Roeg is a key influence on Rumley, not just on the hallucinatory visuals of Crowhurst but also on his stylish 2016 psycho-noir Fashionista.
World-premiered last week at Oldenburg International Film Festival, Crowhurst is also newsworthy because it coincides with a forthcoming big-screen dramatization of the same events, The Mercy, made with a stellar cast on a significantly larger budget. Directed by James Marsh (The Theory of Everything), the rival production will star Colin Firth and Rachel Weisz. In a bizarre tactical move, Studio Canal are set to release both films, having bought the rights to Crowhurst with a contractual stipulation to launch it theatrically soon after rolling out The Mercy, which is due on French screens in December, followed by Britain and Australia in February.
The year is 1968, the location southwest England. Crowhurst (Justin Salinger) is a devoted husband, father of four young children, amateur sailor and businessman whose finances are perilously shaky due to poor demand for his latest invention, an electronic nautical navigation device. But he sees a chance at turning his fortunes around when the Sunday Times newspaper launches its Golden Globe Race offering cash prizes for the first ever single-handed, non-stop, around-the-world sailing contest. The fastest circumnavigation will win £5000, which equates to roughly $80,000 today. Crowhurst signs up for the race, staking his home and business in return for sponsorship.
Bidding farewell to wife Clare (Amy Loughton) in late October, Crowhurst sails his innovative triple-hulled yacht Teignouth Electron onto the high seas. Inexperienced and ill-prepared, he is soon in trouble, lagging far behind the competition in a dangerously unseaworthy trimaran. He eventually decides to concoct an elaborate fraud, lingering close to Argentina instead of completing the full planned route. Shutting down radio contact, he begins falsifying his navigation logs, initially with a view to winning the race by deception, then in an increasingly desperate bid simply to save face and avoid bankruptcy.
In the summer of 1969, facing certain shame and ruin at home, Crowhurst suffers a mental breakdown. He starts to experience nightmarish visions and scribble long, impenetrable, philosophical screeds in his log books: “By learning to manipulate the space-time continuum, I shall become God and disappear from this physical universe.” Sometime after his last log entry on July 1, he does indeed disappear. The consensus is that he committed suicide by throwing himself overboard, though Rumley and screenwriter Andy Briggs leave the mystery suitably fuzzy, refusing to speculate or embroider on the scrappy known facts.
With its allegorical layers and unresolved puzzles, Crowhurst’s tragic fate has proven irresistible to numerous artists over the decades, inspiring more than a dozen stage plays, novels, poems, operas, songs and visual art projects. Long before Rumley and Marsh, several filmmakers already tackled this story, notably Jerry Rothwell and Louise Osmond in their prize-winning 2006 documentary Deep Water.
Doing most of the film’s dramatic heavy lifting, Salinger gives a compellingly ambivalent performance, hinting at the darker depths below Crowhurst’s placid surface of genteel English sportsmanship. The real Crowhurst had quite an exotic backstory: He was raised as a girl until the age of 7, his family was impoverished during the chaos surrounding the end of British rule in India and his military career was curtailed by a murky disciplinary scandal. A more ambitious, imaginative screenplay might have probed these traumatic past events for psychological clues.
Rumley and regular cinematographer Milton Kam shot Crowhurst in an uncharacteristically straight manner, invoking the historical era with a nostalgic, muted, sepia-tinted color palette. The overall style is a little starchy and cramped, almost like a one-man play, with budgetary restrictions apparent from threadbare interiors and flat secondary characters.
But Rumley’s psycho-horror background proves a real asset during the feverish finale, where multi-screen montages, distorted speech effects, time-reversed footage and other stylized touches take us inside Crowhurst’s unhinged psyche. More of this sense-warping Roeg-ian intensity would have been welcome in a film that ultimately feels like an uncertain hybrid of period docudrama and experimental suspense thriller. It’s an intriguing curio, for sure, but a minor addition to Rumley’s mind-bending canon.
Production companies: Splash Page Media, Sterling Pictures Ltd.
Cast: Justin Salinger, Amy Loughton, Simon Armstrong, Tom Sawyer, Glyn Dilley, Edwin Flay
Director: Simon Rumley
Screenwriters: Andy Briggs, Simon Rumley
Producer: Michael Riley
Executive producers: Nicolas Roeg, Robert A. Halmi, Jim Reeve
Cinematographer: Milton Kam
Editor: Agnieszka Liggett
Music: Richard Chester
Venue: Oldenburg International Film Festival
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